Rev. George Miller
July 10, 2011
After four days away and a week of what would be best be called “messy” it is good to be here, behind the pulpit once again.
Today my goal is to tell you about General Synod 28; not to bore you with endless information, but to share with you what this particular experience was like.
As most of you know, the United Church of Christ held our national meeting last week in Tampa. Over 3,000 people participated; nearly 5,000 attended the Sunday afternoon worship service.
There were classes, resolution meetings, and plenaries; there was a flash communion service, a protest at Publix, catered meals, cocktail gatherings, and cookies.
Lots and lots of cookies; over 10,000 dozen baked by members of the FL Conference. At the end of the 5 day event, every single one of those 120,000 cookies was enjoyed.
That’s 7.78 cookies per person per day, which for me sounds just about right.
But why? Why did we do this? Why do we as a denomination that values autonomy decide to meet every 2 years?
To worship. To listen, to learn, to share. To make decisions: the seemingly simple and the divisively difficult. To find out what is going on with the other 1.1 million members of the church.
To be a family, a family that is known as the UCC; a kooky conglomerate of congregational kin who are part of the universal Body of Christ.
And let’s be honest: as a denomination we are sometimes that annoying part of the body that demands to be scratched, which some people would prefer to lance off.
General Synod is not so much about what we have done; it’s about what God has done and is doing. That’s also a bit of what the book of Romans is about.
In this letter, Paul is writing to a group of churches he has not met, but hopes to visit one day. He’s establishing a relationship. He shares with them that he knows what they are going through, how their churches are made up of people from various backgrounds.
Paul encourages them to look past their immediate differences and to welcome each other as Christ has welcomed them.
This sense of inclusiveness in the midst of diversity is meant to influence both the ways they worship and the ways they provide hospitality.
In this portion of the letter, Paul tries to shift them from ways that may be too obsessive, self-centered and holier-then-thou, and to get them to bask in the spiritual freedom that comes from belonging to God in Christ.
In essence, Paul is saying “Imagine What’s Possible”, which was the theme for this year’s General Synod.
At Synod, the idea of imagining was represented by a tent, on a patch of sand; a tent meant to represent the dwelling of Abraham and Sarah; a tent meant to invoke the ways in which they were called to participate in God’s redemptive work.
And so 3,100 of us gathered, from far and wide, and we discussed ways in which God has called us to say yes to life and no the ways of death and sin.
There was columnist Leonard Pitts who encouraged us to walk and talk with a sense of purpose and power that comes from knowing that “Daddy has the whole world in the palm of his hand.”
He reminded us that history is filled with important people who did not exceed in everything they imagined, but still left the world a better place.
As he stated “Only when you’re prepared to fail is there any hope for a chance at success.”
There was a passionate presentation on the plight of tomato pickers in our country; how 1,000 workers in FL are held against their will to work in the fields and endure physical, financial and sexual abuse, and of how Publix, which gets their produce from some of these suppliers, stated “If there are atrocities, it’s not our business.”
There was the decision to streamline our national office by consolidating our five existing boards into a single board.
This did not come without much debate and arguments, with issues ranging from theological language, to concerns about limiting the voices of some, or alienating the voices of others.
There were forward thinking resolutions that make the UCC such a progressive Christian player.
One resolution affirmed the rights of gay and lesbian parents to raise children.
Another resolution was to share a baptismal understanding with three other Reformed traditions and the Roman Catholic Church, which is a major step in ecumenical talks and imagining that “They all may be one.”
There were the farewells of people who faithfully served the denomination, such as Associate General Minister, Edith Guffey. But there were also the hellos of those like W. Mark Clark who will be her successor.
Rev. Geoffrey Black, our UCC President and General Minister shared his “Big, Holy, Audacious Goals” that include being widely recognized for our witness to justice and equality in a way that is unapologetic and fearless.
But this wasn’t all that General Synod was about. From a social aspect, it meant being reunited with dear colleagues. It meant meeting new people and hearing first hand the ministry they are doing.
The prominent story I heard from those whose churches are vibrantly alive is not about how the pastor or council have total control; but the ways in which they lead by creating an environment in which members could step up on their own to create new programs and to do hospitality in endearing ways.
Yes, all those things took place. But let me share with you the moment that epitomized General Synod 28 for me.
Last Sunday I was walking to my hotel room when a man named Frank, from New Jersey, asked if I could help with a bit of money.
I like to carry loose cash for such occasions, so I gave it too him and we had a conversation. After we talked, another man rolled up on a bicycle asking for help. I told him I had no more money, but we exchanged names. His name was Mike.
Later that night I was returning from a gathering for clergy with my former classmate and pastoral peer Jeanne.
As we were on our way, Mike came riding up to us, calling to me in that wonderful southern display of respect “Mr. George.”
I was ready and reached into my pocket. “Mr. Mike, it’s good to see you,” I said, shaking his hand while sliding cash into his palm.
“I don’t want your money,” he said in the politest of ways, “I want you to pray for me.”
We were still in mid-handshake, the money visible through our fingers; for me a humbling reminder that ministry is not always about material needs.
Mr. Mike shared some of his story, being vulnerable, admitting his mistakes.
It was Jeanne who prayed.
This was not a moment of sin or death, but a holy moment of life and of peace: the three of us, standing on the city street, close to midnight, holding hands; black and white, male and female, straight and gay, north and south.
I can’t even tell you what Jeanne said; just that it flowed out of her in a way that said “Yes, the Holy Spirit is here.”
When she finished, Mr. Mike offered up his own prayer, asking God to bless our denomination and the work we’re doing.
When we were done, Mr. Mike rode away, and Jeanne and I walked back to the hotel, not saying anything, because everything had been said.
It was a God moment.
At first it seemed that it was Mr. Mike who was reaching out to touch the hem of our garments, but the truth is that we too were also reaching out to touch the hem of his.
That’s the moment that epitomized what Synod meant to me: a reminder that there is still so much of God’s work to do in this, God’s world.
If we can only be brave enough to imagine, willing to fail, fearlessly unapologetic.
As Paul would want to remind us, regardless if we do it alone, as a church, as a denomination, as an entire faith, it is, and has always been, God’s work, called upon by Christ, shaped by the Holy Spirit.
Look at what God has done, is doing and will do. How blessed we are to be called to play a role in how God is accomplishing these things.
Let us set loose our imagination upon the ways of the Holy Spirit. May God’s Heavenly Kingdom shine in our hearts and may Christ continue to shape our lives, today and ever more.
Amen and amen.